one inch frame

Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a book I often read through when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the project at hand. As I am just now. Her “one inch frame” is a reminder that I’m supposed to be thinking about the character in front of me, and just her, and what she’s up to right now. Forget the War of 1812, the British Navy, the complicated politics, the fact that I’ve got characters waiting for me up there in Paradise and on l’ile de lamatins, too. Just concentrate on Giselle at her breakfast table looking at the ships in the harbor.

The problem is, Giselle is still a little put out at me for leaving her to her own devices.The last we saw her was about half a million words ago and now she’s being standoffish. However, she tolerates me as she would a portrait painter.

I wish her husband would come along so I could get a look at him, because I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that he’s somebody I’ve seen before.

short stories

I’m pretty exacting when it comes to short stories. Either they please me quick, or I bail out.

I want a plot. I want characters whose voices are loud and clear. They don’t have to be likable, but they’ve got to engage my interest somehow. I want to be enchanted or amused or shocked or furious, all those things at once, if possible. Many classic short stories leave me cold, so don’t be surprised that you won’t find James Joyce on this list or (cough) Hemingway. Don’t misunderstand: subtle is just fine and dandy, as long as it still comes with a plot attached. The list is in the Extended Body below.

Of those stories I’ve mentioned, I would have to say that Bambara’s “My Man Bovanne” is as close as it comes to perfect, in my view of things. This short story has been filmed as a part of the Issues of Aging Curated Video Collection (actors Theresa Merritt as Hazel and Bill Cobbs as Bovanne).

I’d be interested to hear from you if you know any of these stories and have an opinion. Oh, and: I’ve given you more than one place to find the story, if I have that information available.

ALLEN, WOODY. The Kugelmass Episode
New Yorker May 2 1977
Worlds of Fiction ed. Roberta Rubenstein & Charles R. Larson, MacMillan College Division 1993

ATWOOD, MARGARET. Rape Fantasies
The Harper Anthology of Fiction ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991
Fiction: A Longman Pocket Anthology ed. R. S. Gwynn, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1998

BAMBARA, TONI CADE My Man Bovanne
We Are the Stories We Tell: The Best Short Stories by North American Women Since 1945 ed. Wendy Martin, Pantheon Books 1990
The Harper Anthology of Fiction ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991

BAXTER, CHARLIE. Gryphon
Epoch 1985
American Short Stories (6th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1966

BLOOM, AMY The Story
The Best American Short Stories 2000, ed. E. L. Doctorow, Houghton Mifflin 2000

GODWIN, GAIL Dream Children
The Harper Anthology of Fiction, ed. Sylvan Barnet, Longman 1991

JACOBS, W. W. The Monkey’s Paw
Harper’s Monthly Sep 1902
Olden Tales ed. Bradford M. Day, Hillsville, VA: DayStar Press 1996

KING, STEPHEN The Reach AKA “Do the Dead Sing”
Yankee Nov 1981
American Short Stories (7th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Longman 2001

OATES, JOYCE CAROL Extenuating Circumstances
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque
New York: Dutton 1994

O’BRIEN, TIM The Things They Carried
Esquire Aug 1986
American Short Stories (6th edition) ed. Eugene Current-Garcia & Bert Hitchcock, Addison-Wesley Pub Co. 1966

MUNRO, ALICE Friend of My Youth
New Yorker Jan 22 1990
Short Fiction ed. Charles H. Bohner & Dean Dougherty, Prentice Hall 1999

ROSENFELD, STEPHANIE Grasp Special Comb and
in her collection of short stories: What About the Love Part Ballantine 2002

on writing dialog

Stoppard

As most of us aren’t Tom Stoppard (in fact, I’d guess nobody reading this is Tom Stoppard, but do compare your face in the mirror to the picture to be absolutely sure), and as I get a lot of questions from people on the mechanics of writing in general and dialog in particular, I thought I could put up a few points. Not all at once, but now and then. These are from my teaching notes.

(If it turns out that you are Tom Stoppard, we’ll carry on without you. On the other hand, if you find this kind of thing interesting or of use, please let me know.)

Before beginning, a word to the wise in the form of an Italian proverb: Do not remove a fly from a friend’s forehead with an axe. (I ask you, who but an Italian would think it necessary to state this?)

So here goes.

1. Dialogue must never convey information alone. It must accomplish more than one thing at once to earn its keep. It may:
characterize,
advance the action,
provide exposition
(introduce theme/characters),
provide setting,
foreshadow,
convey information.

2. Conversely, a line of dialog shouldn’t do all those things at once because then it will probably slip over the line (or march proudly over the line, better said) into the realm called (so elegantly) info dumping. Here’s an example (it’s fun to make examples of info dumping; but then I’m easily amused).

“But Joan, you went to law school because you adore your mother who has a law degree from Yale and worked for two years in the Eisenhower administration as White House Council.”

That is, never convey backstory in dialog. Very tacky.